Turkeys do not look forward to November and December. We do. Thanksgiving has long been my favourite holiday tradition in the US. It is non-denominational, and everyone can celebrate. It is the one occasion when we can express gratitude for and to those around us, connect with friends, and be able to convert that into festive food, wash it down with goodwill and enjoy it with calorie-less cheer.
The festival celebrates the arrival of the Mayflower and the local Wampanoag community sharing an autumnal feast. The Pilgrims had an elaborate menu – including lobsters, seals and swans. The modern equivalent is focused on Butterball-bred turkeys rather than on exotic wildlife. The Pilgrims probably did not use the term ‘Thanksgiving’ at the time – they were just relieved at collecting their first corn harvest. Their message, as simple as their Pilgrim way of life was, contained this simple blessing: “Although it is not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the Goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of plenty.”
Contemporary celebrations are more focused on baking and creating pies and managing desserts. Courtesy Abraham Lincoln, the day was declared a national holiday and by 1939, in an effort to boost retail sales, Roosevelt tried to move the holiday – to no avail. Black Friday sales are part of that tradition. Nowadays, in America, there is a National Turkey Federation. They report that 90 percent of Americans eat turkeys in various forms. Over the years of living in the US, our family has been exposed to the various combinations: turkeys fried in in vats of peanut oil and served Southern style with kale and collard greens, roasted or baked as a main dish.
On Thanksgiving, we celebrated as a family and friends who are our extended family. There is always good cheer associated with it – the joy of baking seasonal apple and pumpkin pies, and of sharing the meal with those less fortunate. Last year, my daughter took over a meal for an Ethiopian barista at our local coffee shop. He had complained about always having to work over the holiday. Seeing the homecooked meal, he actually began to cry, saying it was the nicest gesture any one had done for him.
In NY, the all-American Macys’ parade is held each year with over 2 million spectators. Closer to home in Washington DC, the US president pardons two turkeys. This year Biden pardoned the lucky Peanut Butter and Jelly, probably selected according to their age, temperament and – during these times – their vaccination status.
This year, Thanksgiving has coincided with the publication of a fascinating book The 1619 Project, that turns history upon its head. It argues that American history did not begin with the arrival of the pilgrim fathers on the Mayflower but in 1619 with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia about 400 years ago. The project, its book and podcast have attempted to reframe US history by acknowledging slavery and the contributions of African-Americans to the American historical and national narrative.
The originator of this alternative hypothesis, Nikole Hanna Johnson, first published it in the New York Times as an essay. It has since been awarded a Pulitzer on social commentary. Conversely, it has been denounced by some historians as being divisive and factually incorrect.
In many ways, the argument reminds me of the one prevalent in Pakistan as to whether the country should be defined culturally or by its majority religion. Can ideology supersede factual events? Should we blindly accept revisions or reclassification of history using religion rather than culture?
It is a battle being fought in several countries these days, whether in America, UK, India or Pakistan. Yet, it is central to the understanding of who we are as a people. We need to take a closer look and re-examine history, however uncomfortable the outcome may be. We need to be open eyed about our history, nuanced as it is. Some of these systems, whether colonial or slavery, created profit for a few at the expense of many.
In America this book has prompted contentious conversations about the evolution of history and the nation’s founding. We ourselves debated this over Thanksgiving dinner, and finally agreed that though much of history depends on who is writing the narrative, it is better to settle on the things one can agree on – important things like motherhood, apple pie and whether the turkey leg was too dry.
Thanksgiving and for any Christmas are a time of forgiveness, of understanding and acceptance that although the world is not perfect, it is the only one we have – and to celebrate that precious gift each year, every year.